Flowers, All Sorts in Blossom, Figs, Berries, and Fruits Forgotten
Edinburgh: Hybrid Press, 2020. pp.96. $13
Tell me – what do you want from Dublin? If it can be summed up in black-and-white photos of Beckett (that’s Paris, I know, I know) or cocky young Joyce in a flat cap, hands in pockets and holding a stance you could steer a ship through, or Ronnie Drew lubricated by a pint of plain and singing whack fol the da now dance to your partner, then what you’re looking for is a Dublin you already think you know. A kind of a green version of a shortbread tin. Oisín Breen lives in Edinburgh, so he kens all about shortbread tins. So that’s not it. That’s not the Dublin that explodes onto page 52 and comes up against the blank wall of page 61. I tell you, I stared for a long minute at that blank wall…
But first let me hold the book in my hand and tell you about the experience of holding it. Poetry books are slender to the point of anorexia. The publisher wants to caress you into buying. Never mind the width, feel the quality. It’s worth – is in not? – a penny short of a tenner of anyone’s money. So I pick it up and shake it. What falls out? A wee slip of errata, mainly its/it’s and whose/who’s. No, no, no. Forget the slip, just leave the slips there as Easter eggs for the compulsive grammarians; give ’em a treat. What doesn’t fall out? The CD. That has to be pulled away, leaving the ugly bleb of a sticky fixer. The book, denuded, makes a handsome sound as I flip the pages, and the cover doesn’t bend outward like a stale sandwich once I start to use it. So all is good, the book is well bound and that is important.
Inside are words, oh boy! The rear cover blurb, which I came to last, says Modernism. Yes, I got that. Oisín Breen has been down to the architectural salvage yard and trucked away all the bricks from T.S. Eliot’s demolished house, plus a few baroque knick-knacks, a neon sign, and a few unidentifiable bits and pieces. With those, and with some new, bright, chromed plumbing, he has assembled a building that seems to come together ad libitum in his own image, or from his own imagining. This is, for example, the first poetic work I have yet come across that contains the word “phenomenological” – I kid you not, right there on page 81. Again the rear cover says Howl. No, not that, there’s only one Howl. Except yes, maybe, a little, at least it has a howl in it:
And I howl:
Forgive us all.
And, I suppose, both Howl and Flowers are in tres partes divisi. What it has most of all is Breen’s intoxication at his own erudition. And – bedad Adad – he is erudite. In Flowers, All Sorts you get more references to stuff Biblical, Classical, Goidelic, and arcane per line-inch than you could wish for. My tip to you is not to waste your time Googling everything you don’t recognise, but rather to let them be the sound of the sea to you.
Sound is the clue. There is sound here a-plenty, before you even slot in the CD. Read it all, and roll it round your mouth, sounding it out, and if you should trip over your own tongue, then enjoy the weightlessness that comes with every fall before it is interrupted by a bump. Sight too. Flowers All Sorts is a page-dweller, making use of its space by way of shapes; but not compulsively so, as often an indent goes by unnoticed. And sometimes sightlessness, coming in a block of interpolated prose:
For in 2015, I love you, and I splice interstices of intersecting sedimentary instants in refracted chronological collapse — tempus fugit I say; and you tell me: damn your eyes – so we’re still needful of swallowing sights with the thrill of a divested melancholia, and, like de Sade said of reconstituted churches of bones: it’s all sublimity and the funerary art thus done to give life; so, from rounded domes of authority, I linger — my fingers (re)threading data — touching your thoughts while you wait, a service to please you, as you gush the binary agitated dilemma of the placelessness of sightlessness and love. Yet, I shew you again yourself, but not in bones but in reuse, repurposing, and in the superb resurrection of structures of stone.
Again the back blurb says “staccato.” No, never that. Rather the feel of a strong river’s submerged rocks making white water of its flow, making turns in its course. If you do not wish to search such passages for meaning, as meaning there must be, then approach it all as you would L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. Let it mean to you what the instant of reading it makes resonant in you. Let that word “phenomenological” hint itself at you. In case I have left you with the impression that this is a work without structure, the tres partes above should have clued you to the contrary. The flow is only apparently random, being made up of three distinguishable reaches entitled “Isn’t the act of placing flowers on a tomb a gesture of bringing a little life back to the dead?” “Dublin and the Loose Footwork of Deity,” and “Her Cross Carried, Burnt.” Each section has between six and eleven sub-cantos. This is the structure within which Breen makes free, and which you must explore to work out where the bourn of each must be hopped over, and whether you can hop back.
Is this going to be thought of one day as a major work? I doubt it. I don’t think it asks to be such. But as a work to have on your shelf, a work to say that poetry is not yet done with Modernism or with Ireland or with erudition, then I don’t doubt that. I’m just back from the StAnza poetry festival, where I have heard short poems with which passages from Flowers, All Sorts, could stand alone and compete for engagement with the listeners, and that’s saying something. So think of the penny you save out of a tenner as luck money. Take the book. Take your time over it.
Poem from the book:
Memories, stilled and muted harmonia,
silk-heavy in the russet wind,
like sinuous leaves with ice-cracked spines,
and a timbre of slowness,
In a schema of licentiousness,
Prompt, more so than age,
these liver spots on my translucent skin.
But the act itself,
its flash powder of yellow-tan dust,
engorges the hour-hand at its brightest,
in a languor reconstituted: all just variations of dusk —
And the end is composed of orchids,
and the lopped heads of milkweed,
sundered by centrifugal force:
an effulgence of shadows,
shimmering on sun-whetted stone.
And I place flowers on my father’s grave,
a gesture, like any other,
to bring life to the dead.
And beside me two junkies eat a watermelon from a plastic bag,
And a black and white tit hops beneath their feet.